You can take a lot from Russia; it has lost plenty already: cash, empire, territory, clout. Russia is tough and wintry; Russia survives undaunted.
But there’s one thing you can’t take from Russia, and maybe it has something to do with all that loss: the bottle.
No leader has ever cracked down on Russia’s epic drinking and been kindly remembered for his trouble. But now the young president says he is going to try.
In a country where you can sip vodka at the playground while watching your children scramble on the jungle gym and polish off a business meeting with endless rounds of toasts, Dmitry Medvedev has launched a classic public relations campaign against drinking, complete with blistering condemnations, public commands to his underlings and the promise (or threat) of impending change.
Recent limits on alcohol advertising and stiffer drunken driving penalties haven’t dented Russia’s appetite for booze, the president griped. “Nothing has helped,” he lamented a few weeks ago as he asked the government to craft new restrictions.
And so Russians wait, with their trademark skepticism, to see what form this latest crusade will take.
Russian drinking is a deadly and serious rite; the statistics are staggering. Half of all deaths of Russians ages 15 through 54 are caused by alcohol-related diseases, the Lancet medical journal reported.
But health arguments seem to hold little water for those who like to call the hair-of-the-dog method “getting back in shape”; and vodka, beer and cognac are braided into the national identity itself. Russian tipplers are still grousing about former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign of slashing production and jacking up the price of vodka to force Russians to stop drinking.
Gorbachev’s restrictions got the ever-inventive Russian proletariat hooked on moonshine, rubbing alcohol and industrial cleaners, a sometimes fatal taste that lingers today, especially in the poor and depressed provinces.
His assault on alcohol, along with the collapse of communism, still sticks bitterly in the Russian psyche.
“We didn’t really pay any attention to what he said,” middle-aged businessman Kirill Filatov said, sopping up the dregs of a long, wet lunch in the shadowy corner of a Moscow cafe.
“If we wanted to drink, we drank. We closed the doors on the train car and drank.”
But Russian drinking isn’t as heavy as it used to be, he reasoned. After all, he said with a red-eyed glance around the room, nobody was falling-down drunk.
“Look,” he said, gesturing toward the table, where about an inch of beer still stood in the bottom of his mug. “We didn’t finish our beer, and I only had one shot of vodka.”
And with that, he headed back to work.
Is this a fight that Medvedev can win? Many Russians regard the president as the deferential offshoot of his longtime mentor, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Medvedev has done little to carve out any position distinguishing him from Putin; even some of his supporters depict him as a surrogate for the prime minister.
And so it has caught the nation by surprise to hear him seize upon drinking with such venom. In one particularly fiery moment, Medvedev even went so far as to praise Gorbachev’s hated campaign. It may have been flawed, Medvedev argued, but the crackdown did boost demographics, a glaring issue in a country where people are dying faster than they’re being born.
But he is up against centuries of habit. And in the streets of Russia, the booze keeps flowing.
“We’re not drinking,” said a construction worker named Vasily Pik who stood gulping down cans of beer with a couple of buddies at noon on a weekday. “We’re just killing our hangovers.”
Asked about Medvedev’s anti-alcohol campaign, Pik burst into raw gasps of laughter.
“It’s impossible. He doesn’t stand a chance,” he said. “The Russian man will always be drinking. Russians don’t surrender.”